Designing the Next Generation of Nuclear Reactors

For June 6, 2018

Hi WN@TL Fans,

I grew up at 118 College Avenue in Dixon, Illinois, two blocks south of Commonwealth Edison’s coal-burning electric power plant on the Rock River.   A spur of the Illinois Central Railroad brought the coal by the carload and heaped a huge black pile along the river.

My Mom worked in the Com Ed office there before she got married, and a family friend, Mac McBride, was the head engineer of the plant. It hummed all day and rumbled all night, and blew out white smoke (actually, it was water vapor) through its two smokestacks.  It was also blowing out carbon dioxide, but at the time it wasn’t a pollutant the way sulfur dioxide or ash dust were.

In the early 1970’s Edison became a leading producer of nuclear-powered electricity. With the nukes going on line, the coal-fired plant in Dixon was doomed. It was shut down and then torn down around 1979.  Eventually the rail spur withered and passed into history, too.

In about 1976, and with the help of Mac (he was among the first adults we kids addressed by first name), my older brother got a job at the nuclear plant in Cordova on the Mississippi near the Quad Cities.  From then on, a lot of what I came to know about nuclear reactors came from him.

But in the meantime I also learned from Three Mile Island in 1979. And Chernobyl in 1986. And Fukushima in 2011.

Also in the meantime, carbon dioxide went from being a harmless byproduct to a greenhouse gas that threatens in this century the world and all in it with global warming.

So the challenge of developing new nuclear reactors is for many of us also a dual quest of meeting energy demand and cutting carbon dioxide in the air.

Tonight’s talk by Professor Raluca Scarlat of Engineering Physics is on “Designing the Next Generation of Nuclear Reactors.”

As she writes:  “The next generation of nuclear reactors must be made at a more rapid pace in order to keep up with climate change and increase the impact the reactors can have on reducing carbon emissions. This talk will focus on how the design of nuclear reactors has advanced through time and how it continues to impact the world today.”

About the Speaker

Raluca Scarlat earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Cornell University and her PhD in nuclear engineering from the University of California-Berkeley. Prior to her doctoral studies she worked for GE and ExxonMobil. In 2011, she advised for Hitachi-GE, in Japan, on post-Fukushima changes to severe accident guidelines for the Japanese fleet of reactors. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Engineering Physics.


Speaking of greenhouse gases:  next week (June 13) we will metaphorically step into a Garden of Earthly Delights—the Botany Garden & Greenhouses here on campus.  We’ll hear from the new director of the garden and greenhouses, Ingrid Jordon-Thaden, a vision for their future.

And if the weather permits, after her talk we’ll head to the Garden for some botanical roaming in the gloaming.

Hope to see you soon at Wednesday Nite @ The Lab!

Thanks again,

Tom Zinnen
UW-Madison and UW-Extension